“Oh, I know you!” Those were the very first words I said to my newborn son, just moments after giving birth to him almost 22 years ago. I held him in my arms, looked him in the eye, and realized that I really did already know this beautiful tiny baby. Throughout our two days in the hospital, I found myself talking to him: asking if he was hungry, singing a nonsense made-up on the spot song when I changed his diaper, telling him how his little clothes were presents from his grandpa and grandma, and reassuring him that I was there with him when he was crying. Talking to him just came naturally. He had heard the sound of my voice for nine months, so I knew that he knew me, too.
When and How to Talk to Babies
Some people wonder when and how to talk to babies. The answer is simply to talk to babies as you would talk to anyone else. Even if the conversation is one sided, your baby is listening and absorbing your words, your actions, and your tone of voice.
There are everyday tasks such as feeding, diapering, bathing, and dressing that adults seem to do automatically at times, not remembering or realizing that these experiences are new for infants. When we slow down and see these tasks through new eyes, we are able to use them as opportunities to explain slowly, honestly, and in real language about what is happening.
When bathing, for instance, your conversation could be like this:
“Mommy has your bath all ready for you. Let’s take off your clothes. I’m going to unsnap your playsuit. First let’s slip out your left arm. Now, your right arm. And now your left leg and your right leg. Oh, is it chilly? You look surprised! Come now, I’m going to pick you up and put you in the tub. The water is nice and warm. Does that feel better? I see you kicking. Does it feel good? Oh, big stretches, too! Ok…Mommy’s going to wash your head with this wash cloth. Rub-a-dub I’m washing your hair. Now, I’m going to wash your face. Oh peek-a-boo! I see you. There are your eyes, and your nose, and your mouth! Now, I’m going to wash your ears and your neck. And wash your arms and your tummy. Can you sit up a little so I can wash your back? That’s good. Thank you. Now, let’s get your legs and your little toes. You have two feet! I’ll wash them both. And now, I’ll wash your bottom. Are you all done? I’m going to lift you out of the bath and wrap you in this nice warm towel. I don’t want you to get cold. Oh, that was a nice bath. Let’s go into your room and put your jammies on. Then, you’ll be ready for a story and a little milk, and then a little nap.”
I have had parents tell me they dread bath time because the baby cries. Often, you will find that the baby cries because there isn’t any language used. Imagine how you would feel if someone stripped off your clothes and plunged you into a pool of water without telling you why. You would probably be afraid, too! But, when we use language to communicate ahead of time, as well as during the activity, our words and our tone soothe and reassure. You are inviting the infant to become an active participant in her own life.
When baby does cry, rather than shushing or trying to distract her so she stops, let her know you are listening to her. Rather than shutting communication down with a “shush” or “don’t cry,” interact with your baby. Let’s go back to bath time for an example:
“Come now, I’m going to pick you up and put you in the tub. Oh, you’re crying! Is the water too hot? Let me see. Oh, I see, it’s a little cold, isn’t it? We must have waited too long. Let me pick you up again and add a little more warm water. I’m sorry. That must have been unpleasant. I don’t like cold baths, either. I would not have liked that at all. There, that feels better. Let’s try again. I’m going to put you back in the water and let’s see if it’s better. Oh good. I see you kicking and moving about. That must feel much better. I’m very sorry. Mommy will try to be more careful tomorrow.”
By having a conversation about why she was crying, not only did we involve baby in the situation, but we also taught cause and effect — the water was cold, so you cried. We also taught problem solving — the water was cold and unpleasant but when we added warm water, it became pleasant again. Most importantly, we let baby know we heard her concerns and they were important to us. We listened as she communicated with us.
The way in which we talk to babies is also important. Dr. Montessori believed that we should use real language. In the examples of conversations in this article, we don’t use baby talk. Your conversations should use real language and the same tone that you would use with older children or adults. It may be hard to believe that babies really understand us, but remember, they have been listening to real language since before they were born. They heard adult conversations every single day while in the womb. It might seem like we need to use a high-pitched or sing-songy voice and “cutesy” baby talk, but the most respectful way we can communicate with our babies is to talk to them intelligently, with the belief that they understand what we are saying.
When we talk to babies intelligently, we encourage communication and language development. We increase awareness — both ours and theirs! And we build trust, deepening the bond between us.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Friday, September 7, 2018.